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Ever-improving Treasure Island banks on fat budget

(ran Beach edition)

Change is in the air in Treasure Island _ and on the land. That fact is clear in the city's latest budget.

New residents are flocking to the beachfront community, and current property owners are pouring money into their homes and businesses. The city is spending money on new bridges to keep the money flowing into town.

"This budget says we're doing things right," said City Manager Chuck Coward. "Some people are impressed with what's going on here."

The city's millage rate is projected to stay the same at 2.6272. A mill is equivalent to $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed property. The millage rate is expected to raise $2,279,290 in the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

That's a 12.3 percent increase from the past year and a direct result of parcels changing hands or being renovated, Coward said. When homes are sold or substantially renovated, they are reassessed and property tax caps don't apply.

A property owner with a $150,000 house who takes a standard $25,000 homestead exemption would pay $328.40 in city taxes.

"Residents and businesses are reinvesting in their property, and outsiders are finding us very attractive," he said.

Property taxes are part of the city's $6-million general fund, which pays for most day-to-day operations. The city's overall budget is $21.6-million _ the largest in its 47-year history. The budget is up so much because the city received a grant of $5.2-million to begin rebuilding the Causeway bridges.

In the 2002-2003 fiscal year, the city expects to spend about $7-million to replace the two approach bridges, beginning in February with the west bridge at the entrance to downtown near the St. James Condominiums. Residents can expect to see more big budgets in the next four years while the new bridge is being built. The city is seeking additional grants and probably will raise tolls to help pay for the $60-million bridge.

Besides the bridges, the city is spending about $1.5-million to develop the Sunset Vista Trailhead Park and spruce up the nearby entrance to Sunset Beach at the Blind Pass Bridge. City commissioners have reviewed the proposed budget and plan public hearings in September before it is adopted.

The latest budget reflects the vision set forth by the city in 1998, Coward said. It is a continuation of master planning, beautification and improvements to utilities and roads.

"It's a pretty straightforward budget with few surprises," Coward said. The city's 141 full- and part-time employees receive a 2 percent salary increase in the proposed budget. That doesn't include police officers and firefighters, whose union representatives are still negotiating with city officials for future raises and benefits.

Coward put $140,000 in the proposed budget to buy a new garbage truck. He plans to replace one truck each year for the next four years.

Commissioners agreed to set aside $10,000 in the new budget in case a satellite library can be established downtown. The city is part of the Gulf Beaches library system, and the nearest library is in Madeira Beach. Coward also included $10,000 in the budget to study transportation options if the beach trolley service ends in 2003.

Keeping up with technology is another theme in Coward's budget. He wants to improve the city's cable TV productions and give the city Web site a makeover.